On Becoming a Professional Amateur: Enter Stage Right

NM RoadDisclaimer: This is part of a series on being professional about the craft of writing no matter whether you’ve been published or not. My use of the word amateur is in the positive sense of doing something for love.

Today the subject is what it takes to get scenes off the ground. In the manuscripts I see from beginning writers, the openings of scenes often meander their way into the action, trying to get to a Moment that reveals something about the character, the story, the setting. In other words, taking the long road to something happening that the reader will find interesting.

Here’s what I mean…

Sample paragraph: Van entered the house from the back door and set his lunch box down on the kitchen table. He walked across the room and opened the refrigerator where he took out a can of soda. He opened it and took a drink. Then he went into the living room and walked toward the bottom of the staircase. He entered the front hall and realized the front door was wide open. Someone had entered his house.

What is the effect of this cataloguing of every move Van makes before we get to the key Moment he discovers his house has been violated?

Well, for one thing, it softens the impact of that Moment. The Moment oozes out upon the reader like a trickle of water from a shower. This fails to give the reader (or Van) the gut-wrenching moment of discovery that person or persons unknown (if indeed they are persons) have entered his abode.

It’s also very external. We watch Van do all this stuff, but we don’t get his reaction to the situation. The only inside view we get of Van’s head is when we read that he “realized the front door was open”, but even that is muted.

In the end, here’s what we know about Van:

  • He’s just gotten home from work and opened a soda.
  • He’s discovered his front door is open, suggesting that someone’s been in his house.

We have no idea how he feels about this.

How can you get off to a more engaging start?

Let’s try this: Van was halfway across the living room, his mind on the can of ice cold soda he’d just opened, when he realized his front door was hanging wide open. He stopped and stared at it. Dear God, what if…? He realized he was holding his breath, listening to the house.

Here’s what we know about Van as told in this passage:

  • Van’s just gotten home from work and opened a can of soda.
  • He discovers his front door is open.
  • He is afraid that someone might be in the house with him.
  • The thought fragment, “Dear God, what if..?” hints that he may have suspicions about who or what has invaded his home.

Please note that though we know more of substance about the situation, the passage that conveyed this information is roughly half the length of the one that told us less.

New writers often ask where and how they should start a story. Many feel as if they have to walk the characters into place on the page before they can take up the real action. The question: Where and how should I start my story? is often met with the advice to start where it actually starts—that is where the action, dialogue, suspense, conflict, etc. kick in.

This is also true of individual scenes within the story. You don’t have to describe your characters entering a room together and sitting down before they begin conversing. Bring us into their conversation the moment before the first really important issue is raised or the first critical question asked. Bring us into the action the moment just before something happens.

If you want the reader’s heart to race, write the Moment your character’s heart begins to race. Whether it’s the start of a book or a chapter or a scene, you want to get off to the most engaging start you can.

Exercise: Create a brief scene in which the POV character makes a discovery. It can be horrendous, humorous, or pleasant in nature, but the idea is to get the Aha or Uh-oh moment across to the reader. The strategies for scene setting in the previous topic (Black Box Theater) could be helpful here.

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On Becoming a Professional Amateur: Enter Stage Right — 2 Comments

  1. When I first started writing a wise mentor told me to start 5 seconds before the character’s world falls apart. When in doubt start with a brawl.

    The brawl she meant could be mental or emotional as well as physical. Works for me.

  2. “It is usually observed, especially by men who have insufficient means to live the life they wish to be accustomed to, that an unmarried woman of more than sufficient needs must be in search of a husband.” Mary Bennet looked up from the page at her friend Sophie’s face. “What do you think?”
    “I think it starts off well. What else have you?”
    Mary grimaced and put the page back on the writing desk which occupied her lap. “Well, another twenty pages, all of them as fatuous as that.”